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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review

The Women  (2008)
2 Stars
Directed by Diane English.
Cast: Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Eva Mendes, India Ennenga, Candice Bergen, Cloris Leachman, Bette Midler, Debi Mazar, Carrie Fisher, Jill Flint, Ana Gasteyer, Joanna Gleason, Tilly Scott Pedersen, Lynn Whitfield.
2008 – 114 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for sex-related material, language and some drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 12, 2008.
A loose contemporary remake of the play by Clare Booth Luce and the 1939 film directed by George Cukor, "The Women" has taken a reported fourteen years to get off the ground. In that time, actors came and went (Julia Roberts was at one time attached), the script was worked on, and what was once planned as a lavish, big-budget vehicle got downsized to a more modest scope. The wait was ultimately not worth it, but the same audience won over by 2008's "Sex and the City" feature—a worn-thin shell of the brilliant HBO series it was based upon—will no doubt eat this up. For more discerning tastes, "The Women" is just okay, a female-empowerment tale with a strong cast but nothing new or eye-opening to say about relationships or the fairer sex. We've seen this all before.

In a gimmick that is just that—a gimmick—females are not only the lead characters, but they fill out the supporting players and every extra glimpsed. Men are spoken of at length, but never seen. This is cute for a while, but does lead to problems when writer-director Diane English, a veteran television producer making her film debut, asks us to hold an active interest in the fate of a marriage where one-half of the equation is nowhere to be found onscreen. That is a tall order to make work, and English doesn't quite pull it off. In the meantime, she lovingly treats upscale clothing stores and trendy shopping boutiques with the kind of revelry that can only be found in the hearts of wealthy women the world over. It is difficult to connect and identify with a protagonist who works from home and still finds it necessary to have a full-time Dutch nanny and barb-ready live-in maid.

Connecticut suburbanite Mary Haines (Meg Ryan), who has always dreamed of being a fashion designer, and old college friend Sylvia Fowler (Annette Bening), the editor-in-chief at Manhattan-based women's magazine Caché, have remained close confidantes throughout the years. Their friendship is put to the test when Sylvia overhears from chatty manicurist Tanya (Debi Mazar) that Mary's husband is cheating on her with smokin' hot, naturally bitchy spritzer-girl Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes). As Sylvia plagues herself over whether or not she should tell Mary, the secret is passed down to mutual friends Edie (Debra Messing) and Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith). They needn't have worried; Mary has found out the truth for herself, and suddenly embarks on the prospects of a life without the man she always thought would be in it.

"The Women" should not be a cinematic offense to anyone—in the end, it means well, lest we forget the tacky "Be Yourself" coda where the actresses talk about what it means to be a woman—but it also is wildly uneven. There are a number of really nice, affecting moments. A scene where the happily childless Sylvia offers unexpected advice and honesty to Mary's troubled 12-year-old daughter Molly (India Ennenga) is beautifully written and performed, as is another scene where Mary hears the words of encouragement she needs after meeting the colorful, pot-smoking Leah Miller (Bette Midler) at a self-fulfillment camp. The dynamic between friends Mary and Sylvia also feels fairly honest and believable, particularly in a late scene where they rekindle their bond after having a falling-out with each other.

If the film has the ability to sideswipe the viewer with good material, it is perplexing why the rest of it feels so artificial. The comedic dialogue is uniformly unfunny, save for maybe when Mary's quick-witted housekeeper Maggie (Cloris Leachman) spots Sylvia glaring in the backyard windows and asks why she's acting like a Jehovah's Witness. Otherwise, the picture works far better as a dramatic piece; memories of the cloying, grating, over-the-top childbirth scene in the third act still haunts me. Confusing, too, is the lazy, hackneyed treatment of Mary's and Sylvia's other two close pals, eternally pregnant Edie and lesbian writer Alex. No mention is ever given as to how these four different people have become friends—Edie and Alex are a bit younger than Mary and Sylvia, so it couldn't have been at college. Furthermore, they disappear for inordinately long stretches of time and are strictly defined by their sole aforementioned characteristics of "pregnant" and "gay." This is just plain sloppy writing, and the same could be said for Mary's housekeeper and nanny, who cavort around as if they've just wandered off the set of a bad sitcom.

What almost saves "The Women" from disposability are the radiant performances from Meg Ryan (2007's "In the Land of Women"—come to think of it, are we noticing a trend?) and Annette Bening (2006's "Running with Scissors"). Ryan, who hasn't looked this good in ages, displays a poignant vincibility as Mary Haines, a woman who discovers that she isn't the mother or the woman that she fooled herself into thinking she was. And Bening, depicting a refreshingly complex working woman at peace with her desire to never have kids of her own, is close to faultless. When Bening's Sylvia is told by Molly that she'd make a great mom—something she never thought she would hear—her reaction is authentic and sweet. Less satisfying are the wasted turns from Debra Messing (2007's "Lucky You") and Jada Pinkett Smith (2007's "Reign Over Me"), as Edie and Alex, who might have more face time in front of the camera, but aren't nearly as memorable as the sharp turns from Bette Midler (2004's "The Stepford Wives"), as Leah; Candice Bergen (2003's "The In-Laws"), as Mary's mother; and Debi Mazar (2005's "Be Cool"), as the gossipy Tanya.

"The Women" is a painless diversion, but its inconsistency keeps the outcome from being one that can honestly be described as time well spent. To fix this issue, it might not have been a terrible idea to hire a director more comfortable in the position than Diane English, who allegedly received help from Ryan and Bening during production. Flat-footed and cornball as a comedy, virtuous but all too easy as a fable about finding your passion in life, the picture's 14-year path to fruition should have taken a fifteenth in order to get the kinks in the script worked out.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman